When two mirrors face each other, their mutual reflections seem at once infinite and inescapable. Indeed, organs have often been described as mirrors of an orchestra in the hands of one musician; and vice versa, it is not uncommon for orchestras to be compared to organs. What happens, then, when an organ and an orchestra face each other? One possible answer has recently come from Finnish composer Esa-Pekka Salonen, whose latest work – an organ concerto – had its German premiere at Berlin’s Philharmonie in the skilful hands of French organist Olivier Latry and under the baton of the composer himself. For the occasion, the concerto was paired with what one might call a suite of suites, the programme including Ravel’s Ma mère l’Oye and Le Tombeau de Couperin, and a suite from Bartók’s ballet The Miraculous Mandarin.

Olivier Latry and the Berliner Philharmoniker
© Stephan Rabold

Positioned between the two Ravel works, the concerto shares with them a fascination with ancient musical forms. Opening the customary three-part structure, the first movement bears a title (Pavane and Drones) that recalls not only Ravel’s notable modern pavanes, but also the original Baroque dances, thus drawing on a rich, multi-layered tradition. Much in the same way as the French composer, Salonen chooses not to incorporate too many actual quotes in his score, favouring instead an informed but original reworking of the genre. 

Equally original were the composer’s orchestration choices. Rightfully named sinfonia concertante, the piece bypasses the usual duality between soloist and orchestra and explores different instrumental balances within the ensemble. Latry, who shares the dedication of the concerto with Latvian organist Iveta Apkalna, met such demands by producing an impressive spectrum of colours and dynamics. His playing alternately towered over, merged with and quietened under the orchestra, creating not just a reflection but a sonic image with a life of its own. Together with Salonen and the Berliner Philharmoniker, Latry traced a route which, albeit occasionally rough, proved to be a captivating addition to a repertoire that’s still quite underrepresented.

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the Berliner Philharmoniker
© Stephan Rabold

The two orchestral suites by Ravel made for a fitting frame to the Organ Concerto's vigour. Their mostly placid nature, only occasionally agitated by animated moments, evokes a rarefied atmosphere which Salonen understood and highlighted. Making sure not to rush anything, he maintained a pace that let the scores breathe, but without getting lost in self-absorption. As a result, his interpretation of Ma mère l’Oye was a lesson in musical cohesiveness, each tale modelling a small self-sufficient world to then make way for the next, until the radiant crescendo of the last episode. Yet Salonen was also perceptive of Ravel’s famously refined orchestrations, as was clear from Le Tombeau de Couperin. Relaxed tempos and attention to timbral effects made the performance smooth and pensive, perhaps leaning more on the melancholic side than accentuating the score’s dance rhythms.

All the more reason, then, to feel the sharp contrast with the last piece of the evening, the suite from The Miraculous Mandarin. Here, Salonen retrieved the throbbing sense of rhythm from the third movement of his own concerto, making the orchestra pulsate almost restlessly. It felt indeed somewhat miraculous, or at least reminiscent of a sorcerer casting a spell, to see the conductor conjuring and shaping a real vortex of sound. Yet the rendition wasn’t just stormy; it was also incandescently precise, the brass cutting through the air like arrows. Clearly in his element, as soon as the music faded Salonen was met with just-as-thunderous applause.